What if you’re afraid of falling ill at work but can’t afford to stay home?


The federal government’s Canada Emergency Response Benefit was announced March 25 to the great relief of many workers and businesses across Canada. Regulations, released April 1, were quick to follow. But many vulnerable workers and people in insecure jobs who are afraid to keep going to work but can’t afford to stay home have no relief in sight.

At first glance, it looks promising. CERB will provide $2,000 in four-week blocks for up to 16 weeks for workers who “lose their income as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.” It will be open to anyone who has earned at least $5,000 from paid work or Employment Insurance maternity or paternity benefits in the past year. Applicants must have COVID-related income loss for 14 consecutive days prior to application.

But who exactly qualifies for the benefit was the question on the minds of many workers in essential services, such as those who work at grocery stores across the country. The federal government said the benefit would apply to people in many different circumstances, including “Canadians who have lost their job, are sick, quarantined, or taking care of someone who is sick with COVID-19, as well as working parents who must stay home without pay to care for children who are sick or at home because of school and daycare closures.”

CERB, we were told, would apply to “wage earners, as well as contract workers and self-employed individuals who would not otherwise be eligible for Employment Insurance (EI) . . . [and] workers who are still employed but are not receiving income because of disruptions to their work situation due to COVID-19.”

But, long as that list is, it’s not quite long enough. What about those who are not sick, don’t have kids at home to care for or don’t match any other criteria on that list but are afraid of going in to work but do so because they need the money? There’s no mention of those in essential sectors, such as grocery store clerks who come into contact with hundreds of people daily with little (if any) protective gear. Or pregnant women with little financial choice working in these essential jobs who see contradictory messages about the risks they and their babies face with regard to COVID-19. In Tennessee, pregnant women are being treated as a high-risk group. In Quebec, the latest word is that pregnant women are at higher risk of respiratory illnesses but should still be treated like the general healthy public. What’s a woman to believe?

Pregnant women with little financial choice working in these essential jobs see contradictory messages about the risks they and their babies face.


Earlier this week, Corporate Knights published an article on how grocery store workers should be treated as frontline workers, with a big bump in pay to time-and-a-half and at least 14 days of paid sick leave (21 would be more realistic in a time of pandemic) for every worker, regardless of their employment status. We argued that this kind of pay raise would ensure that people who are healthy and strong would keep coming in to work because that kind of pay would make a big difference in their lives. At the same time, people who need to stay home would stay home because they would not lose the income they and their families so desperately need.

Unfortunately, this is not what is happening for the majority of the most vulnerable. Grocery store workers are getting a $2-an-hour pay raise, not time-and-a-half. And few have access to any paid sick or emergency leave days, let alone 14. Most will not have the “choice” to stay home, and if they do, they risk having no job to come back to. The law does not yet protect jobs for workers who stay off work by their own choice because they feel their workplace is unsafe. A workplace has to be officially deemed to be unsafe, and the process for doing so is complex, takes time and puts vulnerable workers who raise the alarm at risk of reprisals. Employment Standards Act regulations have not been adjusted to take this COVID reality into account.

South of the border, we are beginning to see walkouts and strikes at Amazon, Instacart and Whole Foods. Better for Canada to act now to avoid that here.

What’s an employer to do? What should government do? Let’s start with government making provisions for the many extra-vulnerable workers out there, like low-paid, pregnant grocery store employees who need income support and health protection. Let’s also get our provincial governments to make emergency changes to employment standards to protect people who are afraid to keep going to work so that they won’t lose their jobs just because they “choose” to stay home. While they’re at it, the feds and provinces can work together to ensure that no one has to face 14 days of income loss before they can get help. And finally, let’s see all big employers, especially those still turning a healthy profit in the time of COVID, step up and give access to at least 14 days of paid sick and emergency leave. But if that doesn’t happen swiftly, let’s have our governments make them do it.

In a time where we all have to pull together, let’s share the burden among those that can handle it; let’s not put it on the backs of those whose backs are already breaking.


Michelynn Lafleche is a senior advisor to Corporate Knights. She is known for her research on precarious work and labour-market change in Canada.


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